ISIL beheaded Dozens in Palmyra, but how Strategic is the City?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | –

Nearly 500 people died in the campaign by Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) to take the Syrian city of Palmyra, including 49 who were executed before the fundamentalists reached the city center. On Thursday, they are alleged by the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights to have beheaded at least 17 more people, among them Syrian Arab Army POWs, pro-regime militiamen, and pro-regime civilians. The terrorist organization ordered the population of the city to remain in doors. The city of some 140,000 (many of them refugees from Homs and other urban centers damaged by the civil war) fell to Daesh on Wednesday, marking the second city conquered by the organization this week (Ramadi in Iraq fell to them on Sunday).

On Thursday, Daesh forces took two villages outside Palmyra on the road to Damascus, claiming to have killed 50 Syrian Arab Army troops who were attempt to flee to Homs.

For Syrians, Palmyra is famous not only for its historical ruins but more darkly as the site of the notorious Tadmor Prison, where Muslim fundamentalists were imprisoned, including for thought crimes, and torture was practiced intensively. The regime is said to have moved the prisoners to a secret location before the city fell.

Personally, I disagree with those analysts suggesting that Palmyra is a strategic asset or that its fall brings Daesh to the gates of Damascus. It is a small town out in the eastern desert away from the population centers along the western border of Syria. Two-thirds of Syrians live in the corridors linking Damascus to Latakia and Aleppo via Homs. Daesh isn’t all that much closer to Damascus than it was in southern Raqqa province already. Maybe having it improves the organization’s logistics with its assets in Iraq, but that is about it. Some observers are also claiming that Daesh now controls half of Syrian territory. But that is a silly way of counting things. The eastern desert is sparsely populated and it isn’t even clear what ‘controlling’ it would mean. The scorpions and lizards wave black banners? What Daesh controls is mostly white in the below ethnic map of Syria (i.e. unpopulated).

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 2.44.30 AM

The more colorful spots are non-Sunni ethnic minorities like the Druze, Alawites, Christians, etc. However tired these groups might be of the war, they will go to Israeli-style mass citizen mobilization before they will accept being conquered by Daesh. That is, the al-Assad regime may well fall in the end, but the conquest of Palmyra by Daesh does not actually indicate that fall is imminent.

Many Syrians on Twitter are complaining that world leaders like President Francois Hollande of France are all of a sudden energized about Syria now that Palmyra has fallen to Daesh, because of the organization’s iconoclastic policies and the danger it will destroy the Roman ruins. They want to know where Hollande has been while over 200,000 Syrians were killed in the civil war.

The big question is how Daesh, supposedly being bombed by coalition aircraft, was allowed to send out a substantial convoy down desert roads to Palmyra from Raqqa. The Pentagon has been issuing statistics on so many bombing raids etc. for months, but unless the bombing is degrading Daesh’s capabilities then it is a waste of taxpayer money. In Kobane, the bombing succeeded in keeping the city out of Daesh hands because Kurdish Marxist guerrillas also fought it on the ground. But the US can hardly give the genocidal al-Assad regime close air support. Without a ground force to support, the US bombing is merely symbolic.

The situation is different in Iraq, where US and coalition bombing raids have helped push Daesh back in Diyala, Salahuddin and Ninewa Provinces, in conjunction with ground operations by Kurdish Peshmerga or the Iraqi army and its Shiite paramilitaries. In that context, the fall of Ramadi was probably preventable with the right coordination. In Syria, I don’t see the US aerial intervention as so far having been consequential.

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Related video:

Associated Press: ” Ancient City of Palmyra Falls to IS Militants”

12 Responses

  1. I agree that the fall of Palmyra is less significant than the creation and backing of the al-Qaeda infiltrated ‘Conquest Army’ by Saud Arabia and Turkey. Currently centered around Idlib it’s been giving the regime a hammering in the north and is backed by two regional powers considerably stronger than Syria’s rump state. That being said, driving Daesh back in Iraq is useless if it can seize more territory from a weak Syrian government. NATO learned this the hard way on the Af-Pak border with the Taliban. The question of what to do over Syria genuinely has me stumped. Perhaps we can offer the top Baathist leaders exile somewhere like Tehran or Russia so that someone less odious can take over the helm in Damascus? That’s pretty much it as far as I can see.

    • I think the exile option would have been offered years ago. The problem is that the Baath’s constituency would still be stuck in Syria getting slaughtered. The anti-Baath Sunnis would still be stuck in Syria getting slaughtered. You can’t stop the fighting unless each ethnic group has its safety guaranteed against even a few bloodthirsty adventurers from one of the other groups. There are no honest brokers left willing to provide the troops necessary to do this.

    • At least Assad has proved capable of running a multi-ethnic state in the past. Assad has certainly been brutal but states can be brutal in times of war. Deliberate targeting of civilians which killed tens of thousands in one night using bombing firestorms and nuclear strikes comes to mind and the men who did this are regarded as heroes.

  2. There has been much counting of airstrikes without a definition of what an “airstrike” is. Perhaps you, or one of your readers can enlighten me. Is a “strike” one sortie by one plane? Or an attack on a target by multiple aircraft? A “strike” on Germany in 1944 would have consisted of 900 or so heavy bombers, plus 700 fighter escorts. Obviously, nothing like that goes on today. But it would be nice to have some idea of what the term means and how many aircraft are actually attacking. One would think that four or five planes a “strike” would be likely, and that counting planes would be a better measure of the effort than counting strikes or missions.

    • What you are looking for is “sorties” – which represents an individual flight. Not sure where that info is published, though…
      Also, we wouldn’t want WW2 style massed bombing raids. Those flatten cities and cause thousands of civilian casualties.
      There is also a problem attacking ISIS elements that are adjacent to Assad elements. Syria still has a decent air defense system, and we wouldn’t want US planes to be shot down by Assad.

  3. That maybe more of a symbolic victory, however, BBC is reporting that ISIL has seized a key Syria-Iraq border crossing too which sounds like a strategic victory.

    “Islamic State militants have seized the last Syrian government-controlled border crossing between Syria and Iraq, a Syria monitoring group says.”

    “Government forces withdrew from al-Tanf – known as al-Waleed in Iraq – crossing as IS advanced, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said…”

    “The seizure of al-Tanf, in Syria’s Homs province, enables IS to link up its positions in east-central Syria more directly with the ground they hold in Iraq’s western Anbar province…”

    link to bbc.com

  4. If the media is using proper military terminology, always a questionable premise, there is a huge difference between “strikes”and “sorties”. A sortie is one flight by one aircraft, and not necessarily an armed one–individual refuelers, observaton a/c, electronic warfare craft and even transports count as sorties. A strike is a discrete mission, which will in most cases consist of any number of sorties, both the aircraft carrying ordnance and all of the planes providing them with support. Most strikes contain far more support than ordnance delivery sorties.
    As a former grunt, I’m sure that some of the aforementioned terminology is inexact/incorrect, but the principles are valid. My guess is that most of the bloggers we read on this and other sites have no idea about the difference between a strike and a sortie, and are just parroting what they have been told by official spokespersons or anonymous informants. It would be helpful if the military would be clear in their press briefings, but for operational security reasons I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

  5. I have an extremely difficult time understanding how Daesh keeps in business. Evidently new boys and girls keep joining up along the way. Obviously, the game plan for Daesh is working, or they would have been vanquished a long time ago. A city of 140,000 would likely have some assets. Vacant residences from the fleeing refuges would have value for the new, excited boys and girls who want to join up for the campaign. Food in the pantries would be valuable. Stores can provide goods. A city that size must be good for obtaining capital that can be taxed, gouged, extorted or looted.
    A city this size can also help to conceal logistical operations.
    Last and not least, the whole world will be shown the destruction of the ancient iconic ruins. As much as it is appalling for us to see these ruins destroyed, it is intoxicating for others to take in the iconoclastic power of Dasesh.

  6. I wandered around Palmyra a decade ago in a country where people were more friendly than anywhere else I have visited. I still remember being invited to homes and wonder where these people are now.
    Palmyra is a place of great historical and cultural significance, The Roman and Greek influenced architecture is simply stunning and it would be an enormous loss to the world if these sites. over 2000 years old, are damaged or destroyed.

  7. I have begun to wonder if the West, or most especially, the US, is playing a very diabolical, Machiavellian game in Syria whereby Washington planners are looking at the situation now and thinking, “Hmmm, public and congressional opinion was against intervention in Syria for the past few years, but now, the Assad regime may be on the ropes anyway and the dirty work on the ground is being done by someone else, and those someone else’s are so much worse than Assad, and their threats have been played up by the Western press so prominiently, that we should just stand aside, let the fanatics finish off Assad and the government forces, and THEN we’ll have the perfect rationale for Western intervention to toss out the really bad guys and install a compliant puppet regime. The citizens will back this, the Republicans will grudgingly back this, and once images of Palmyra being leveled hit the media, even the Europeans will back this. It will be like Iraq only this time we’ll make it stick.”

    Is this too devious and clever by half, or could some cold-hearted thinkers be seeing this sort of opportunity?

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